POLITICAL CONVENTIONS are like Las Vegas. They are shows. And what's the motto of Las Vegas? What happens here, stays here. That applies to conventions as well. They don't have a large impact on the outcome of elections. Yes, a party's presidential nominee usually gets a bump in polls coming out of a convention, and Democratic candidate John Kerry surely will widen his lead over President Bush. But far more often than not, the bump dissipates rapidly.
This doesn't mean conventions are meaningless. They matter, just not as much as they used to two or three decades ago. In the old days, the presidential nominee, the party's platform and even who would be seated as delegates were decided at the convention. Now all that is set in stone well before convention time.
Something quite different will be decided at the Democratic convention, that begins here today, and at the Republican convention in New York starting on August 29. The issue is whether the script written for each convention, largely by the presidential nominee's campaign, carries the day. As we've seen in the past 20 years, sometimes delegates refuse to follow the script and sometimes the script is simply bad. Mostly, though, the script is rigorously obeyed.
In Boston, the script calls for Democrats to display unity. In fact, all convention scripts put a premium on unity. That should be no problem here, since Democrats are united in loathing Bush. That Kerry fails to excite many Democrats isn't really important. It's enough that he's their party's choice to oppose Bush.
The Democratic script calls for two other things. One, speakers are supposed to stress national security, patriotism, and fighting terrorism. Strength in military and foreign affairs is the designated theme, the plan being to take on frontally an issue that has doomed Democratic candidates in the past. Second, Kerry wants speakers to play down their hostility to Bush. Shrill attacks on the president won't help, his strategists believe.
If the script holds, Kerry will look good. If it doesn't, if speakers at the podium and delegates being interviewed by the media wander off message, reporters and commentators will say so. They'll be critical--a little bit, anyway.
We've seen what it looks like when things go wrong. At the Democratic convention in New York in 1980, the theme of unity behind the reelection of President Jimmy Carter fell apart as supporters of Senator Teddy Kennedy and other party dissidents refused to play along. At the Democratic gathering eight years later in Atlanta, the script barely got off the ground. Instead, Jesse Jackson dominated the convention with his demand for platform and other concessions from presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Jackson hogged press attention to Dukakis's detriment.
The first President Bush suffered even more at the Republican convention in Houston in 1992. There, the script emphasized family values and, of course, unity. But the theme was repeated so often and so robotically--and so harshly in some cases--that it flopped. Worse, the press treated the speech by Bush's primary rival Patrick Buchanan as the tone setter for the convention. Buchanan talked, among other things, about a religious war in America, not a theme crafted with undecided voters in mind.
One more thing about this summer's convention: role reversal. The Kerry Democrats are headed to the right, the Bush Republicans to the left. Democrats will sound like hawkish defenders of America's preeminent role in the world. With California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arizona Senator John McCain, and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as major primetime speakers, Republicans will take a more moderate tack. They'll sound notably compassionate about the problems of non-rich Americans. Will role reversal work for either party or both? That's for voters to judge.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.